Nationalism and Freedom of Movement

Gijs Steinmann

Nationalism and Freedom of Movement

Do liberal states have the right to exclude non-members from their territory? Are there, in other words, reasons that justify restrictions on immigration? Or should we instead recognize immigration as a human right? The ethics of immigration nowadays appear at the forefront of political theory; the goal of this thesis is to contribute to these debates. My strategy is to critically evaluate the philosophical grounds on which David Miller bases his defense of the right to exclude. The central argument of this thesis is that, when subjected to critical scrutiny, the framework from which Miller approaches immigration does not suffice to trump the basic interests of immigrants – people who, for morally innocent reasons, seek a better place to live. 

         This thesis focuses on two key components that are embedded in Miller’s perspective on immigration. The first is Miller’s theory of nationality, which I argue forms the backbone for his view on immigration. The second is Miller’s perception of freedom of movement. Section 2 describes Miller’s theory of nationality, with an emphasis on his conception of national culture. A shared national culture, argues Miller, is a crucial element for building and maintaining extensive social solidarity and social justice. Accordingly, co-nationals have an interest in controlling their national culture. The inflow of immigration may have unwanted effects, both culturally and politically, and immigration restrictions are an important way in which citizens can control the development of their society. Nevertheless, argues Miller, the human rights of potential immigrants ought not to be violated.

         This brings us to Section 3, which focuses on Miller’s view on freedom of movement. Freedom of movement generally is considered to be a human right within the borders of each state. There are scholars that argue that all the reasons people may have for wanting to move within a state can also be a reason for movement across borders. Therefore, they argue, international freedom of movement – i.e. immigration – should be a human right. Miller opposes this view. He argues that the right domestic free movement forms an important protective function: it protects citizens and groups from discriminative state practices. Moreover, Miller argues that freedom of movement is predominantly valuable for its instrumental purposes, and movement within states provide sufficient freedom to serve a person’s basic needs.

         Section 4 forms my critique of Miller. I argue that Miller’s conception of national identity is based on a flawed epistemology of culture. Contrary to what Miller assumes, cultures are not distinctive wholes that are congruent with a certain group of people. Moreover, the interest society may have in preserving their culture is outweighed by the interest of immigrants in finding a (better) place to live. Miller’s view on freedom of movement is also flawed, which is mostly due to his need to make the physical extent of this freedom compatible with his theory of nationality. In conclusion, Miller’s liberal nationalism cannot justify imposing severe restrictions on the freedom of immigrants.


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Universiteit of Hogeschool
European Studies: Transnational and Global Perspectives
Prof. dr. Helder de Schutter
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